Let’s see the EU for what it is

Usually, when some of us carelessly decides to participate in a discussion on the European Union during a party or meeting outside of the European Bubble, we encounter interlocutors coming not from the classical political left-right axis, but rather from the unique axis related to the European integration: Eurosceptics and Euroenthusiasts. What is interesting here is that during such debates we often deal with two manifestations of the so-called “horseshoe theory”, which is attributed to French philosopher Jean-Pierre Faye which states that extremist groups bear more similarities to each other (even if they fight for totally different ideologies) than to the centrist or “establishment” ones. First of all, we can see that sympathisers of both far-right and far-left parties tend to be more reluctant or even hostile towards the European Union than those who support moderate political powers. Secondly, both Eurosceptics and Euroenthusiasts share elements such as turning a blind eye to particular EU activities or capabilities, exaggerating the meaning of events concerning the situation of the Union (like Brexit) or believing that the approach or methods of historical European leaders is the best solution for all the problems that the European Union has to deal with (as it is with de Gaulle for one group and Schuman for the other).

On May 24, fellows of the European Leadership Programme had a rare opportunity to meet with someone I think I can call a Eurorealist: Mr. Marton Hajdu, policy analyst at the Secretariat General of the European Commission and former spokesperson of the Permanent Representation of Hungary to the European Union and former  member of the Financial Crisis Task Forceat DG COMP. Working at the Commission, he is responsible among other things for preparation of briefings for the President and Vice Presidents of the College of Commissioners. 

Mr. Hajdu told us about his beginnings as a leader of the EU negotiation moot association and participant in a leadership programme in the United States, where he studied at Georgetown University. During the Hungarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, he received a proposition to work as the spokesperson for the Presidency, which helped him later to get a nomination as a spokesperson of the Hungarian Permanent Representation. His responsibilities included speaking to more than 800 journalist covering EU affairs from the member States and abroad. What is worth noting, he said, is that the contingent of such journalists from abroad was growing in line with growing interest in the EU, until COVID pushed it on a downward tred. Although in Mr. Hajdu’s opinion the General Secretariat of the Commission is a perfect place for people who like working hard in the shadows and having contact with top EU officials, the communication field requires slightly different skills: you have to “sell” particular topics to the public. The easiest way to do that is to connect it with some other subject, which at the time is very popular and “sexy”, as our guest put it. 

Mr Hajdu also talked about the role of the Joint Research Center in providing scientific advice to policy making, gathering scientists and specialists from different fields and focusing on an actual development of the EU policies. Mr. Hajdu recalled, that the Commission’s work is based strongly on research and science, in contrast with the political tradition in some Member States. 

He also talked about communicating the EU and the Commission, and he thinks the communication division faces certain unsolvable problems: according to him, it is almost impossible to communicate the EU activities and successes properly, simply because the citizens do not think much about the Union. The Commission also does not have the resources and the mandate to promote its initiatives on the same scale as, for example, multinational companies. He stated that the people tend to think about the EU in a way they are told by the national politicians and that the EU officials are not very interesting to the citizens of the EU. What he proposes is promoting local narratives connected to EU themes and more engagement from the Commission’s Representations’ side in doing so. 

Mr. Hajdu was honest with us in saying, that the European Union is in reality a club of Member States, a project unique in its nature, but still not a federalist one. People building it stay between those who are too international and those with a tribalistic approach. For our guest, both of these groups are wrong, just as both Eurosceptics and Euroenthusiasts were wrong in their judgments on the future outcomes of Brexit – the United Kingdom did not collapse into four small countries or experience an economic downfall, as the EU-lovers thought would happen, nor did it become a strong, global empire liberating itself from all deals with the EU and launching a pan-European wave of nationalisms. Although he believes in the EU and admires its achievements (such as long-lasting peace and cooperation between its Member States), he knows that the Union cannot exist without the countries belonging to it and that it always has to serve the current interests of those countries. In his view, it would be dangerous to completely oppose the – in the scale of human history relatively new – concept of the nation state, since it helps us develop ties of cooperation on a scale that otherwise would not be possible due to biological and cognitive limitations of human beings. Furthermore, as Mr. Hajdu reminded us, the European Union has competence to act in many fields, such as competition (which is why working at the DG Competition is so exciting in his opinion), while Member States reserve some areas for themselves (as it is with culture). As our expert stated, we should work to develop the Union in the way that suits our needs best, not forgetting about the importance of nations and local traditions – at this point he advised us that wherever we go, we should visit the local history museum, in order to better understand the community around us and expand our imaginations. 

Although for some of us the perspective presented by our guest was a little hard to accept, I think that in the end we all have to admit that for now the EU is indeed a club of Member States and not an independent entity over them – we can put efforts to change this state of play, but in doing so we have to take into consideration the sentiments and interests of communities at the local, regional and national levels. Mr. Hajdu pointed out the three most important elements that we have to care about during our careers: networking, knowing our stuff and being relatable. Although we heard even more advices from him, such as to participate in as many social events as possible, which allows us to save money on food, his final remark was in fact the most significant for all fellows: the more you engage, the greater the chance to return to Brussels. 

Post by: Jan Pabisak